Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Oxford University Press  2002

Based upon newly accessible archival records, Michael Oren recounts the diplomatic and military history of the 1967 Six- Day War. His research concerning the nature and objectives of Israel’s enemies and the realities of U.S.-Israeli relations are sobering, while his narrative of Israel’s victory is both riveting and heroic. The book provides much needed historical context for the contemporary Middle East crisis, which long predated the collapse of the Oslo Process and the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

Oren spares no effort to detail the origins of the war and particularly why Israel felt compelled, contrary to the counsel of the United States and France, to fire the first shot. The blockade of Eilat, the expulsion of United Nations troops, and the remilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula were de facto acts of war mandating an Israeli response. The tripartite alliance of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria confronted Israel with a virtual stranglehold. Perhaps most tellingly, Israeli intelligence had ascertained that Nasser was within hours of a first strike, which was aborted only by a last minute Soviet intervention. 

The unsung hero of this narrative is the muchmaligned Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Widely criticized for lack of leadership, Eshkol defied his generals by insisting upon restraint, which in turn engendered broad international support. Moreover, Eshkol correctly predicted the costs of Israeli occupation after the war, noting in particular that Gaza would amount to “a bone stuck in our throats”. 

Particularly surprising and in pronounced contrast with contemporary politics, was the sustained dovishness of the National Religious Party—not only during the debate over whether to initiate hostilities but also in subsequent decisions to conquer Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the National Religious Party expressed its willingness to exchange territory for meaningful peace. NRP cabinet ministers Moshe Shapira and Zerah Wahrhaftig were perhaps the closest allies of Foreign Minister Abba Eban in counseling restraint. Shapira anticipated even the return of Jerusalem in the context of a postwar peace. By contrast, Oren notes how future Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren urged that the IDF destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount so as to pave the way for building the Third Temple. Wisely, Eshkol insisted that no harm occur to religious holy sites—an objective sadly at odds with Jordanian treatment of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in Jerusalem over the previous 19 years. 

Perhaps of greatest contemporary relevance is Oren’s treatment of the United States and its relationship with Israel. Almost from the beginning, there were two sides to American policy— a resolve to help Israel coupled with an insistence that Israel maintain the moral high ground by refraining from initiating hostilities. President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk in particular were both disappointed in Israel’s failure to wait an additional two weeks before resorting to military force. Nonetheless, America stood by Israel diplomatically. Oren credits in particular the Jews in Johnson’s corner—Eugene and Walt Rostow, Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, and Justice Abe Fortas, for their advocacy of Israel’s cause and for their candor with Israel concerning the limitations placed upon the U.S. government given widespread domestic anti-Vietnam War sentiment. The willingness to call upon the Jewish commitments of Jews within the U.S. administration is a remarkable testimony to the critical significance of Jewish political influence and power and testifies to the central role of American Jewry in forming strategic alliances between the United States and Israel. Thus the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty on the fourth day of the war was quietly set aside rather than be permitted to disrupt U.S.-Israeli relations as some anticipated or even suggested. Oren claims that the attack on the Liberty was entirely a battlefield accident. Notwithstanding Oren’s evidence, which is considerable, the dispute still rages concerning the Liberty and Israeli intentions. To his dying day Johnson himself believed that the assault was a premeditated Israeli action against an intelligence vessel of the United States. 

The enduring value in Oren’s book lies both in its historical reconstruction and in its unstated but critical implications for present day diplomacy. Most importantly, he demonstrates precisely what Israel is up against. Time and again he reminds us that Israel’s enemies hoped to destroy the Jewish State. Jordanian soldiers were given orders to kill all civilians in their path. Syria was guilty of domestic atrocities— including the use of torture. No sooner was the Six-Day War completed than anti-Jewish attacks and burnings of synagogues occurred in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco. In Tripoli, a pogrom claimed the lives of 18 Jews, and the remainder were placed in detention camps. In Egypt 800 Jews, including both Chief Rabbis, were incarcerated. Seven thousand Jews were expelled from Syria and Iraq. Most importantly, among Arab governments only Tunisia and Morocco chose to condemn these atrocities. 

Underlying the now-failed Oslo process lay the assumption that Arab leadership had changed and was now reconciled to the reality of a Jewish state. At minimum, Oren’s book cautions us to “know thy enemy”. At maximum, he challenges the would-be peace makers of today to ask whether the passions and hatred of Israel that gave rise to the 1967 War have truly been laid to rest or whether Oslo represented only a further attempt to gain via diplomacy what was not realized via force.

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